Malkovich finds perfect production fit

Actor's Mr. Mudd grows, builds on 'Juno' success

For John Malkovich, the decision to move into producing was not so much desirable as necessary.

“If you’re going to maintain any kind of passion in this business,” he says, cushioning each phrase in that soft, unmistakable drawl, “you have to make your own way. Otherwise you’re bound to be doing things that interest other people much more than yourself.”

Hence Mr. Mudd, the production shingle he founded in 1998 with Lianne Halfon, former VP of A&M Films, and Russell Smith, his college roommate and longtime best friend — and a fellow alumnus of Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theater.

From the start, the company differed sharply from most thesp-led ventures.

“It was never simply to produce movies for me to act in,” says Malkovich. “It was much more about getting together to make things that happened to interest us.”

Sure enough, the outfit’s first completed project — a 2001 adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel “Ghost World,” helmed by Terry Zwigoff — saw no trace of the actor in front of the camera.

Other films followed. An adaptation of Nicholas Shakespeare’s novel “The Dancer Upstairs” saw Malkovich make his directorial debut. In “The Libertine,” he played a complex Charles II. In “Art School Confidential” (again directed by Zwigoff), he was an egotistical art teacher.

But the company’s biggest breakthrough came in 2007 with the indie comedy “Juno.” Co-produced with Mandate Pictures, the $6.5 million film went on to gross more than $230 million worldwide and earned an Academy Award for its debutante screenwriter, Diablo Cody.

More than a year later, Malkovich views its success with measured pride.

“For me, the most positive change was that it seemed to be perceived as more something Russ and Lianne were responsible for; they were no longer regarded as simply fronting for me. Which was a long way from the truth; a more accurate description would be that I front for them, on pretty much every level. But inevitably, if you’re the most known person, you become the figurehead and, rightly or wrongly, get all the attention.”

Instead, he takes care to emphasize that Mr. Mudd remains very much an equal partnership. “All three of us make the decisions, and we all bring projects in for the others to work on.”

Best of all, he adds, it’s a happy ship: “We rarely argue. There’s a good chemistry between us, and genuine respect. Which suits me; I don’t see conflict as a necessary element of creativity, myself. Though of course,” he chuckles quietly, “many do.”

To this end, they’ve assembled a loose coterie of like-minded talents. “We have a tendency to favor the same writers, and we try to maintain those relationships. We like good writing, above all.”

With a half-dozen projects on its slate — including “Historya,” based on bestseller “Buried Onions,” with first-time Mexican director Rodrigo Garcia Saiz attached; and John Walter’s adaptation of Lawrence Joseph’s novel “Lawyerland” — Mr. Mudd looks set for a busy few years.

Yet Malkovich has no immediate plans to direct himself, despite the critical acclaim garnered by “The Dancer Upstairs.”

“I did get some approaches after that film, and some of them quite serious, from people who’ve done good things — Anthony Minghella, Michael London — and I seriously considered some projects. But I’m a little prejudiced, I suppose, by the fact that I direct in theater a lot, and it’s just a much more streamlined process.

“For example, to do ‘The Dancer Upstairs’ onstage would take six weeks and about two phone calls, whereas to do it as a movie, even for as low as $4 million, took almost eight years. And unfortunately, this is the norm.

“Now, if I was 24 or 25, that might make sense. But I’m 55, and there are other things I want to do, things which won’t take a decade to realize. And producing is definitely a major part of that.”